If you’re a lover of National Parks like I’m a lover of National Parks, the debate about the rims of the Grand Canyon will rage on in your mind. You’ll hear kudos for and gripes about both. I was lucky enough to spend ample time hiking both rims (and a lot of stuff in between, but that’s another blog!) this summer, and will share my thoughts here. Spoiler alert: I don’t think I can pick a favorite! Both rims offered stunning views and fantastic weather when I needed it most.
I started at the North Rim, so I’ll talk about that “side” first. Here are a few quick statistics. According to the National Park Service only 10% of visitors go to the North Rim. The elevations, at over 8,000 feet, are higher than the South Rim, and the season is very short. Just think of it this way: you’ll need to hit the North Rim in the warmest part of the year.
Grand Canyon Lodge is the only place to stay within the park. Now, if you have a little fantasy in your head about having the North Rim all to yourself, scratch that. And if you want to stay at the Lodge and think you have all the time in the world to book a room there “because so few people go to the North Rim,” scratch that daydream, too. I started the process too late and couldn’t get a room for consecutive nights, so had to stay outside the park. It was a short drive, but it would have been nice to be right there.
Not only do rooms sell out fast around there, but so does food. And if you have a special diet, consider buying something before you get there and having a picnic lunch. As you can probably guess, the food is expensive, too. But hey, where else can you eat overpriced burgers while gazing out at the Eighth Wonder of the World?
For the middle of nowhere there was a healthy dose of guests and visitors in the vicinity of the Lodge. The paved trail to Bright Angel Point was busy, but I highly recommend it before moving on to quieter places, particularly if you aren’t a hiker. The short trail is big on views, just don’t expect to be the only person in your selfie, even if you engage in some rock climbing to “get away from the crowds.” Every rock I climbed there soon had a head popping up from below. But this half-miler is a great preview of what you’re in store for.
As is usually the case in the parks, the further a human has to go on foot, the less likely you’ll see a human on foot, at least in most circumstances. The Transept Trail runs from the Lodge to the North Rim campground. In between those two points you won’t see many people. You’ll see more on the North Kaibab Trail, which is the only trail that goes into the canyon from the North Rim. Some kind of bragging rights seem to be attached to hiking into the big hole in the ground. I stopped at the Supai Tunnel, (four miles down), which was as far as was recommended on the burning hot day I was there. Personally, I liked the upper trails better, though the Coconino Overlook and seeing “where the mountains meet the desert” were worth the cruel joke of having to go back up after going down, just the opposite of most hikes.
Recommended: do the very short Roosevelt Point and Cape Royal trails with the rest of the crowd. Get away from everyone on the overlooked and easy to miss Cliff Springs Trail. And, drum roll, please…
Best Kept Secret: Cape Final Trail, a four-mile out and back recommended to me by a ranger. In my opinion, this cannot be missed. Just don’t be discouraged by the pretty dull (not to mention flat and easy) first mile and a half through forest. Continue on to the end for an extremely pleasant surprise. Scroll back up to the top of this post for a preview of what you’ll see. It’s almost unfair that you have to work so little to get so much! Even better: you have a chance here to have the canyon all to yourself. Beat that.
Now, to the South Rim. This rim is much more accessible than the North Rim, and it’s lower in elevation, and warmer. I entered from the east side at Desert View (Route 64.) This is easily the busiest part of the Grand Canyon. Driving this stretch of the park road from Desert View to Grand Canyon Village was slow going, but offered many wonderful view points. Warning: some of the parking lots look like they belong at a mall in Southern California, a testament to the popularity of the South Rim. If you’re looking for food and gifts shops, there are no shortages here.
By some stroke of luck I secured a room at the Bright Angel Lodge. I expected to hate the Village, but ended up very happy there. My cabin was cozy and convenient to the hiking trails, and I was just down the street from a shuttle stop to Hermit’s Rest, at the extreme western point on the park road. The only way to Hermit’s Rest is by the free park shuttle, which takes about forty minutes once you’re on. Though you may wait an hour to get a seat, the glory part is that most people get on and off this thing several times, going from viewpoint to viewpoint, cutting down on foot traffic in between photo ops. Put more simply, yes you can have the South Rim all to yourself if you’re willing to walk a few miles.
I chose to hike the Rim Trail, which is pretty self-explanatory. Heading east from Hermit’s Rest I was blissfully solo for the first three to four miles.
How can this be? Well, here’s the secret: the paved Hermit Road Greenway Trail (for bikes) serves the same general area as the Rim Trail. Everyone (but yours truly!) was walking that. An easy mistake. But after starting on the Greenway I happened to look downward and saw the real Rim Trail (for hiking.) The trail cuts the side of the rim pretty closely in some places, so I don’t recommend if for someone with a fear of heights. I also don’t recommend it if you’re looking for someone to take your picture with the canyon in the background. Chances are excellent that your potential photographer is walking the Greenway. But if you want a little bit of adventure and unobstructed views while you take amazing selfies and do your best not to fall to your lonely (but beautiful) death, this is the trail for you.
The Rim Trail gets busier as you head east, and east of the Village it’s paved and overrun with humanity. All told, the Rim Trail is twelve miles in length, with the best miles being the first three from Hermit’s Rest.
If you’re one of those aforementioned people that must go into the canyon to have bragging rights, four trails of varying difficulty leave from the South Rim: Bright Angel, South Kaibab, Hermit, and Grandview. Check the NPS website for more information and trail conditions. Take weather reports very seriously. I watched a vicious storm from my cabin that shut down roads and trails and kept emergency personnel very busy. You do not want to be on a trail during one of these times!
If I had to choose between rims I couldn’t do it. I thought they were equally amazing, and I highly recommend spending ample time at both!